Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"Amazing Spider-Man" Mostly Exceeds My Low Expectations

Let me just say that I did not want to like "Amazing Spider-Man". It felt way too soon to do a reboot, and with the overwhelming success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seemed like it would have been smarter to fold Spider-Man into that rather than keep him in his own little world. On top of that, it felt like Sony was more interested in pumping out a paint-by-numbers blockbuster than making an actually decent movie. In a Summer that includes "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises", it can't help but look like it's not trying hard enough.

I wanted this movie to fail big time so that Sony would think twice about creating another one, Marvel Studios would be able to get the rights back, and then Spider-Man could be a part of the larger continuity.

Considering how well the movie is tracking and how positive most of the reviews are, it seems unlikely that it will do that poorly in the box office, though it's worth noting that it only has two weeks before it's annihilated by TDKR and speaking personally, the midnight screening I went to was more than half-empty. Granted, I saw it in 3D, so it's plausible that the 2D screening was more densely populated, but I won't be too surprised if this movie underperforms. Midnight screenings are usually full of really enthusiastic people, but this one felt pretty much like any other movie screening. I get the feeling like word of mouth may not be too positive on this one and apathy will keep people from seeing it right away. This is probably wishful thinking.

Regardless, I went into the movie with pretty low expectations, and the film was definitely better than I expected.

Let me start with the good stuff. Andrew Garfield is a good actor and he brings a certain amount of charm to Peter Parker. Emma Stone is even better as Gwen Stacy. She really pops and is a really solid supporting actress. Martin Sheen, Sally Field, and Denis Leary all do well in their own right and some of the best moments are the smaller moments between characters. Rhys Ifans isn't bad, but he comes off as the weak link in the chain. He's just not a very compelling villain, but more on that later.

The thing that surprised me the most is that the action set-pieces are really solid. I loved Mark Webb's "(500) Days of Summer", but I didn't think he had enough experience directing action to be a good fit for a movie like this. I was wrong. Not only is everything shot well, he makes good use of the 3D, which is something even seasoned action directors seem to struggle with. Spider-Man moves less like a ninja and more like a spider, which gives him a very unique physicality that makes the action almost mesmerizing. Whenever Spider-Man is fighting something, it usually works out really well.

With a good cast and good action scenes, audiences tend to forgive short-comings in the screenplay, which is why I expect there's quite a lot of positive reviews for this movie.

On the negative side, the screenplay is really, really weak. If the acting and directing had been more mediocre, it probably would have been much more blatantly obvious, but as it stands, it's not often bad enough to distract from the whole experience. But as a lapsed Spider-Man fan, this treatment of the character does him a lot of disservice, primarily by turning him into a huge douche.

From here on out I'm going to get into SPOILER territory, but let me just sum up by saying that if you saw the trailers and the movie looked good to you, go ahead and see it, but if it doesn't interest you at all, just don't bother.

So back to Spider-Man being a douche.

Now, the first two Raimi films were well-liked by fans, but one common complaint was that Peter wasn't funny enough. He certainly made me laugh, but admittedly it was more laughing AT him rather than WITH him. But what made it work was that we identified with that part of him. He often did silly or embarrassing things, but it humanized him. What helped with this was that his motivation to be a superhero felt more altruistic. He was the "friendly neighborhood" Spider-Man.

One of the changes they made in this reboot was that now Spider-Man is a snarky trash-talker. The problem is that he comes off like an entitled, self-righteous prick. Not unlike a person on the Internet, as soon as he puts the mask on and becomes anonymous, he starts acting like a complete troll. And not just to the bad guys.

Let's review some of the crap he does in this movie.

- He steals an innocent intern's badge to sneak into Oscorp, causing the poor kid to get forcibly removed from the facility, kicking and screaming.
- He shows no remorse for making his Aunt May wait up all night for him as he went to parts unknown in the wake of Uncle Ben's death, as though he was the only one who had a right to grieve.
- He steals super-spider webbing material to create his web-shooters and then claims later on that he designed the webbing himself. Dude, you designed the web-shooter. I'll give you that. But do not take credit for the webbing that Oscorp probably spent billions of dollars developing that you felt comfortable stealing.
- He beats up a petty criminal because he MIGHT be the guy who killed his uncle, childishly taunting him the whole time, and then when the police show up and attempt to take Spider-Man into custody, he tells the cop that he did 80% of his job for him.
- He shows up to his girlfriend's apartment to have dinner with her family by sneaking into her room through a window and then proceeds to tell her dad (who is a cop) over dinner about how misunderstood poor Spider-Man is.
- Gwen Stacy's dad's DYING WISH is for Peter to promise that he'll leave Gwen out of his superheroics so he doesn't endanger her life. At the end of the movie, Peter is told by a teacher, "Don't make promises you can't keep." He then whispers to Gwen, "But those are the best kind." Well gee, Peter. Sure am glad you decided to wait until Gwen got over the tragic loss of her father before deciding that it was OK to break your promise. Not like she needed to be comforted by someone who knew what it was like to lose a father. And it's not like breaking a promise you made to your Aunt May led to your Uncle Ben getting killed or anything.

Now, let me be fair. Peter's behavior throughout the majority of the movie is not really that douchey. Andrew Garfield actually brings a certain amount of charm and charisma to the role that Tobey MacGuire was sorely lacking. And Mark Webb's talent for making characters feel genuine pays off rather nicely. I really think Garfield should reprise the role so we can see how he can do with a decent screenplay. But his ACTIONS in the movie cause a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. I actually found myself WANTING to like Garfield's portrayal, but the screenplay kept making him do really stupid things.

Speaking of the screenplay, it's kind of a huge mess. It starts out pretty well. Everything up until the death of Uncle Ben is pretty well-paced and neatly tied together. But Uncle Ben's death felt really forced. It was like, "Welp, it's time to kill off Ben so Peter can become Spider-Man now." Sorry, but you can't just do something because it's supposed to happen that way. It just didn't feel right. It had no emotional power, with the exception of one scene where Flash Thompson tries to empathize with Peter over his loss, which was a really great small scene, but everything else felt really forced. Granted, it was cool how Spider-Man starts out just looking for the guy who killed Ben (and I love that he never actually finds him) and eventually grows into the idea that he should be more responsible (although with the exception of one scene with a kid, we never really SEE him show any more maturity), but while that's happening, we have Ifans as the Lizard who is going through a really hackneyed combination of "The Fly" and "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde". His arc as the villain offers no substantial parallel to Peter's supposed growth as a hero and a character. It felt like he was put in because they needed a bad guy for Peter to beat up in the third act. It just doesn't work, and it's made even worse by the fact that they telegraph the entire third act as soon as they introduce the device that can spread an antidote through a magic cloud.

The story also tries to set up Osborne in the same way the Robert Downey, Jr. "Sherlock Holmes" movies set up Moriarty, but with much less success, particularly when we get a glimpse of him in a bafflingly stupid mid-credits scene.

My last huge beef with the movie is how careless Peter is about his secret identity. He's usually so secretive about it in the comics, and it's implied that he wants to be secretive about it here too. But he takes off his mask at the drop of a hat, he uses his powers all the time in high school (which makes it really hard to believe that Flash Thompson doesn't figure out who Spider-Man is), and the crowning jewel of stupid... he sets up a camera to take a picture of the Lizard, but when his plan fails and he flees the scene, Lizard looks at the camera and sees "PROPERTY OF PETER PARKER" on it. Seriously!?

Overall, though, it's a lot harder for me to hate on the movie than I expected. It's funny, entertaining, has some great moments, and I wouldn't be against the prospect of seeing it again so long as someone else paid for it. If the movie does well and Sony decides to keep moving forward with more, then I'll go see the sequel, even though their version of Norman Osborne will likely be really bad if the mid-credits sequence is any indication. They'll also probably kill off Gwen Stacy, which I guess is SUPPOSED to happen, but I like Emma Stone's portrayal so much that I kind of hope they mess with convention and keep her alive. Without her, I feel like this franchise will just be that much harder to watch.

Ideally, I would like it if they started tying this franchise into the MCU through some kind of licensing deal. I mean, I had problems with this movie, but I liked it about as much as I liked "The Incredible Hulk". I'd say Garfield would do fine with the other Avengers and it feels like they deliberately kept things vague so that they could conceivably tie it in if it came to that. It's unlikely, I know, but I can keep dreaming.

Then again, I can live with the X-Men and Spider-Man staying out of the MCU for now. In the comics, the X-Men and Spider-Man tend to make things way more complicated than they need to be. They tend to cause most of the massive continuity shake-ups and rewrites. So maybe it's best that we leave them out.